The main themes in "London" are the fallen world, political tensions, and social woes.
- The fallen world: The poem embodies Blake's Christian belief that humanity has fallen from a state of grace to a life of compromise and sin.
- Political tensions: "London" reflects the tends political atmosphere in the English capital in the wake of the French Revolution and amid a swell of dissent.
- Social woes: Blake's speaker finds evidence of various social woes, namely child labor and prostitution.
The Fallen World
“London” first appeared in Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience. Along with the other poems in that collection, “London” offers a sobering response to Blake’s 1789 volume Songs of Innocence. The frolicking lambs and piping shepherds of Innocence are replaced by the “mind-forg’d manacles” and “youthful harlot” of Experience. The two volumes, released in Blake’s 32nd and 37th years, respectively, reflect the archetypal journey of maturation.
The journey also expresses Blake’s Christian conviction that humanity is fallen—a flawed race marked by limitation and prone to evil. For Blake, to attain experience is to realize that one is a fallen being in a fallen world. “London” can be read as a record of this grim realization. The speaker finds evidence of the primordial fall in the faces he sees, with their “Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” In Blake’s urban imagination (throughout his entire life, he almost never left London), the streets of late 18th-century London stand as a microcosm for the broader human world of “weakness” and “woe.”
Political Tensions in Great Britain
“London” is a deeply political poem. Blake most likely penned it in 1792, just three years after the French Revolution. Blake was initially enthusiastic about the prospect of revolution, going so far as to don the red cap of the resistance. But he became increasingly ambivalent towards the cause as he learned more about the sheer brutality of the revolutionaries. In the third stanza, the “hapless Soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down Palace walls” nods to the violence of the revolution unfolding across the English Channel. “London” captures the uneasy political climate of the British capital at a time when discontentment and dissent were widespread.
Blake himself was a ceaseless critic of the British crown and aristocracy, and his political attitudes permeate the poem. The “charter’d street” and “charter’d Thames” of the first stanza allude to the British government’s practice of selling public property to wealthy individuals, thereby “chartering,” or privatizing, them. The speaker’s sense of treading on owned ground—“I walk thro’ every charter’d street”—helps to establish the poem’s claustrophobic, anxious tone.
In the second stanza, the phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” reveals the political context in which Blake composed the poem. Among British dissenters of the time, “manacles” was a code word for accusing the crown of tyranny. Tellingly, Blake initially wrote “German-forg’d manacles,” a reference to the German mercenary troops the British government hired to quell potential rebellion in London. Blake’s later substitution of “mind” conveys the psychological dimension of political life. In Blake’s view, the oppressed are mentally oppressed and tyranny relies on mental manipulation. He always saw political conflicts as conflicts of ideas. Blake states this perspective clearly in the 1810 lyric “Jerusalem”: “I shall not cease from mental fight.”
Social Woes in Great Britain
Social issues take a prominent place in the poem. In particular, Blake attends to the institutions of marriage and prostitution, whose intertwined relationship was dire for several reasons. Blake narrows in on this relationship in the chilling fourth and final stanza , in which “the youthful Harlot’s curse / Blasts the new born Infant’s tear, / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” At the time of Blake’s writing, London had some 50,000 prostitutes. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a culture rife with venereal disease. The gender dynamics driving sexual mores can be glimpsed in Blake’s lines. Men permitted themselves to indulge their sexual appetites widely, often with prostitutes, but severely discouraged women from doing so. Men, women, and children alike paid the price for this dire...
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arrangement. Libertine men contracted syphilis, the “Harlot’s curse,” and passed it to their wives. In turn, syphilis devastated numerous infants, who contracted the illness from their mothers in utero. Blake encapsulates this social and epidemiological disaster in the phrase “Marriage hearse.”
In the third stanza, Blake illuminates another social issue. In his time, British society relied heavily on child labor, the most common form of which was chimney-sweeping. Because of their slender frames, young boys were hired to clean chimneys, whose narrow flues they could traverse. It was desperate, dangerous work, and it troubled Blake deeply, inspiring him to document the misery of London’s chimney sweepers in two different poems titled “The Chimney-Sweeper.” Ever alert to social hypocrisy, Blake captures the church’s equivocal stance towards London’s chimney sweepers. The church is “appall[ed]” by their desperate cries, which signal suffering and moral decay, but the church is also “blackning.” That is to say, its chimneys need to be swept and thus “appall[ed]”—made pale—by the young sweepers.
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Urban Misery in the Industrial Revolution
At a time when many writers chose to praise the city of London as a beautiful and powerful metropolis of international commerce, Blake instead focuses on the city’s corruption. To Blake, London is a place not of power and pride but of fatigue and disease. In the faces of the Londoners he passes in the streets, he sees “marks of weakness, marks of woe”; he notes distress in every face and every voice, implying that the suffering in London is universal, or nearly so. Blake cites several groups as examples of extreme suffering, such as soldiers dying due to their government's military actions, children working in dangerous conditions as chimney sweeps, and infants born into disease.
Though the poem’s title is “London,” the miserable atmosphere of death, disease, and terrible working conditions could apply to many cities during the Industrial Revolution. Because of this, people of other cities worldwide would have found this poem relatable: Parisians, for example, had seen the blood of soldiers running “down Palace walls” a few years prior, during the French Revolution. “London” therefore offers a glimpse of the harsh reality of many urban populations during the Industrial Revolution.
The Inherent Corruption of Marriage
As the poem’s final stanza illustrates, prostitution was rampant in London during this period. The “youthful Harlot’s curse” that affects newly married couples and their newborn children is likely venereal disease, which was passed from prostitutes to their partners and from mothers to their children. The “curse” thus extends into marriages and results in the infection of infants. The fact that Blake likens marriage to a “hearse” suggests that marriage is already detrimental even before the “Harlot’s curse,” possibly because it is instituted and enforced by the “blackning” church.
Societal Constraints on Individual Thought
Overshadowing this poem is Blake’s mention of “mind-forg’d manacles” in the second stanza. This image implies that the people of London are constrained not by physical circumstances but by their allegiance to and acceptance of the societal structure of the day: London’s misery comes from human minds that insist on living in a social order of violence, cruelty, and hierarchy that oppresses middle- and lower-class people. Blake points to two institutions that he views as guilty of this sort of mental coercion: the government, which allows the blood of its soldiers to “run . . . down Palace walls,” and the churches, which exert great influence over their members and which Blake describes as “blackning.”